We eat at decent restaurants a fair amount, most notably Mise en Place and occasionally Bern’s Steakhouse here in Tampa, and at nice places around the country as we travel. A restaurant doesn’t have to be super-fancy to get our attention, just have good food, good wine, and a nice atmosphere. We want to be known as good customers to both managers and wait staff. We prefer to tip generously and engage our servers without making them feel like they need to entertain us as well as bring the food. When something goes wrong, we don’t get too freaked out about it. We just send it back or ask to get it fixed and then appreciate any gesture the restaurant might make in our direction. In short, we want to be the kind of customers that the place wants to come back.
Still, there are things that go on at restaurants that really get under my skin. Today, it’s about wine.
The restaurant industry has sold the dining public on the idea that the restaurant markup should be significant because of storage, server training, and a host of other reasons. I think they overstate the point, but I’m okay with it to a certain degree. While I’m mostly on board with them squeezing every dollar out of the trophy bottles in the cellar, across the board pricing of more than 2x retail is just too much.
We were at Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas a few years ago. I flipped open the wine list and a bottle of my favorite Bordeaux, Chateau Lynch-Bages, caught my eye. It was a 1995, currently selling in the shops for $80-90. Price on the list: $600. I started scanning the whole list, and prices on nearly everything were equally ridiculous. Sure, it’s Las Vegas, where you expect to get robbed at every turn. This was just over the top. I haven’t opened a wine list at a Vegas restaurant since.
We frequent the restaurants at the deluxe resorts as Disney World every now and again. While California Grill especially has a great list, markups start around 3x retail. It drives me batty.
There’s a sweet spot in wine from about the $30-50 retail range where you can get consistently great juice. Restaurants are doing their patrons a disservice and a disservice to wine culture in general when they charge $100-150 for those bottles. Insane markups like this ghettoize wine-drinkers, and probably keep adventuresome folks from taking a chance on something because the price scares them off. I would love to explore the nooks and crannies of a decent restaurant’s cellar, but the cost for the adventure has just gotten too high. Unless it’s a place that I trust, from now on, I’m bringing my own. Or going by the glass, which brings me to…
Insipid By-the-Glass Lists
Yes, I realize that most places think they need a “house” Chard and Merlot, and drinkers with palates of iron who think that smoking cigarettes and drinking wine at the same time makes them sophisticated need their over-oaked KJ, but what about the rest of us? I’m a little more likely to pay a premium for good stuff by the glass because I know it’s more difficult to maintain. I see so many places that don’t serve by the glass things that they sell by the bottle. One of the reasons that we frequent Mise en Place is that GM and Wine Director Dave Madera keeps up an interesting by-the-glass list which frequently changes. There are always upward of 15-20 interesting choices from all over the world on the list, and always something to pair with all the great food they make. Every time I look at the first page of their list, I swear I want to kiss Dave right on the mouth.
I don’t expect every server or even bartender at a decent restaurant to be a certified sommelier. I expect them to be familiar with what they have in their place, and if I don’t know a particular label, vintage, or cuvee, I’d like them to be able to talk to me about it a little, or get the resident expert to talk to me. Lack of deep wine knowledge isn’t the sin. Those are committed with the bottles themselves.
The first is not knowing how to open the bottle. I don’t need all the pomp and circumstance that the high-end places go through with the wines, although on the rare occasions we’re having really expensive stuff, it kind of feels right. For day-to-day or even just a nice Saturday evening out, it’s unnecessary. Just show me the bottle so that I can verify the vintage is the one I ordered. I don’t even care about a server’s personal technique with opening it. Just get the cork out without leaving any behind. You’d be surprised the number of times that I’ve had to help save a bottle from a torn cork. Simple tip: pull up, not sideways.
Second is over-filling the glass. When they’re pouring by the glass, I get that they want you to think you’re getting value and a half-full glass doesn’t suggest you’re getting your money’s worth, but we’re talking about a bottle that’s already paid for. Pour to the curve. I don’t want to have to pick up the glass with both hands to avoid spilling it. Wine glasses aren’t sippy-cups.
Third is completely upending the bottle or decanter. Sediment in a bottle is very good. Sediment in my glass is very bad. Bottles of wine are not dishrags that need to be squeezed for every last drop.
Speaking of decanting, I’m a believer in getting air into the types of wines we’re likely to drink in most restaurants, namely younger ones. The rules of the decanter are the same as the bottle. It doesn’t need to be drained dry. And while I think that most wines benefit from some air, please do not pour my bottle through a Vinturi or other aerator. For one, I think they’re mostly gimmicky. For two, I’m willing to bet that you didn’t clean (or rinse) it particularly well, and I’ll be getting a taste of the last ten wines that got poured through that thing too.
I sincerely want to be a good customer. I never want to be “that guy.” I’m just asking restaurants to make my job a little easier.